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Teachers Can Make Lessons Relevant by Listening

(This is the fourth post in a six-part series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.)


The new question-of-the-week is:

What are ways to make lessons more "relevant" to students' lives?

Part One of this series was "kicked off" with responses from Blanca Huertas, Marcy Webb, Anabel Gonzalez, Cheryl Abla, Maurice McDavid, and Nadine Sanchez. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Blanca, Marcy, and Anabel on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Part Two featured responses from Shawn Wooton, Dawn Mitchell, Kevin Parr, Michael Haggen, Tamera Musiowsky-Borneman, Dr. Nicki Newton, and Keisha Rembert.

In Part Three, Rhonda Bondie, Akane Zusho, Cindy Terebush, Kimiko Shibata, and Donna L. Shrum shared their commentaries.

Today, Jocelyn A. Chadwick, Ph.D., Andrew Simmons, Leslie Atkins Elliott, and Kristin van Brunt contribute their commentaries.

Teachers need to listen

Jocelyn A. Chadwick, Ph.D., is a former professor who is currently guest lecturing and teaching seminars at Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is the author of The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in Huckleberry Finn, Common Core: Paradigmatic Shifts, and Using Literature in the Context of Literacy Instruction. Chadwick currently serves as the vice president of the National Council of Teachers of English and is an expert consultant for and contributor to NBC News Education:

More than ever, our K-12 students are a daunting audience not only for ELA classrooms but for other content areas as well. How we engage, instruct, guide, and prepare them for their daily living and career fortified with lifelong literacy are the 21st-century challenges we experience every day in our classrooms. We must recognize today's students come into our classrooms from a myriad of environments, situations, and challenges—personal, cultural, economic, social—which are integral parts of them. Our great leveler and challenge lies with an inability to perceive immediately who our students are as individuals. This is our new instructional context and reality within which we are teaching. 

One trait I have observed across the country, regardless of class, gender, economic status, and culture, is this generation of students' focus on relevance—the "so what factor?" What do any of the information and activities they experience in our classes have to do with their here and now? Why should they care? Why should they spend their time reading, writing, thinking?

To answer, we must have the correct instructional responses and strategies. 

  • Understand and communicate to them how the content relates to their reality:

While the content we teach in so many ways is both traditional and new in all disciplines, our student audience is not the same. Our students' concerns, culture, everyday experiences, their deftness with and embrace of digital media all inform how we blend and integrate texts into their here and now. For example, Lowry's Number the Stars, not only is cross-curricular (literary, science, math, social students, and humanities), but also it speaks to concerns and perspectives unique to 21st-century students: family with its 21st-century iterations, economics, culture, identity, voice, difference/Other, choice, gender, relationships, religion, ethnicity, ethics, equity, equality.

Often, we focus on the potential of not addressing standards while yet connecting to the relevance of students. Actually, we can if we readjust the lens through which we reread and rethink the texts, concepts, moments in time.

  • Recognize and encourage their perspectives and unique voices:

Because students today naturally and constantly intertwine, intersect, and scaffold what they see, read, hear, experience in and outside of the classroom, their voice, identity, and sense of ethics are critical to recognize and privilege within our instruction. Encouraging and fomenting students' sharing their perspectives and insights with ours simulates investment and ownership in their learning. A key to doing so requires us as teachers to always listen...Listen...LISTEN. 

  • See and privilege the ways they elect to communicate (social media blended with instructional aims):

21st-century students are wired, relying on digital technology and social media. Rather than dismissing their texts, tweets, emails, and blogs as ineffective communication, we must recognize how our students are writing in some form every day. They are communicating to a specific audience, for a specific occasion, and for a specific purpose—the triumvirate building blocks of writing.

  • Adopt a different lens through which we understand and present the texts, events, theories, ideas we teach

We must focus on their efforts to gain identification and understanding by: 

  1. listening to them  
  2. earnestly considering their perspectives on the texts, concepts, moments
  3. allowing them to see and argue from their unique perspectives, even when we may not agree
  4. refusing to import upon our students preconceived notions, stereotypes, assumptions of their ability, desire, and hope
  5. practicing and modeling equity for ALL of our students, ALL of the time

Understanding how we must address our students and their ways of making, comprehending, and decoding meaning in our classrooms is critical to our success as effective teachers across the disciplines in the 21st century.

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Making health connections

Originally from Kentucky, Andrew Simmons is a public high school English teacher in Northern California. He writes for The Atlantic, San Francisco Chronicle, Edutopia, and other publications. Find his work at adlsimmons.com:

Over 10 years of teaching public high school English, I've been often moved by the sight of students learning how to love, feel safe, demonstrate care, attempt courtship, and function in a social group. I've also surveyed the damage wrought by bullying, sexual harassment, abuse, unhealthy relationships, and social stratification. 

I've concluded that English class can help students sort through the incongruous messages they receive about love and friendship, ingredients of nourishing social lives. A good English class is essentially a health class that supplements a teenager's social education. Educators and students alike should view the ability to foster and navigate healthy relationships with friends and romantic partners as evidence of preparedness for college, career, and adult life. It deserves prominent placement on high school mission statements—along with celebrating STEM programs and demonstrations of leadership.

This concern is as relevant as it gets. Student health is a key but tough-to-measure aspect of education. Anyone who teaches knows that unhealthy students don't reach the data benchmarks set by administrators—whether test scores, graduation rates, or college acceptances. They look ahead to gloomier employment opportunities. I know from both teaching and my own education that teenagers who learn to treat partners and purported friends badly in high school don't change course as grown-ups.

As a teacher, I have a duty to nurture empathy, promote emotional health, and instill in students a sense of social responsibility along with how to think, read, write, listen, and speak. From year to year, unit to unit, this conviction informs my teaching as much as any state, local, or national standard.

From The Odyssey to Hamlet, canonical works of literature taught in high schools can help students understand how to treat—and not treat—others better in love and friendship. Lessons in persuasive, reflective, and narrative writing, as well as public speaking and listening comprehension, improve interpersonal communication skills and emotional intelligence. 

An English teacher doesn't circle up the beanbag chairs for a group-therapy session designed to air out the challenges of individual students' personal lives. Instead, a teacher can guide students through a year of rigorous academic work with relationship and friendship health as one of several strands conspicuously woven through texts, discussions, and assessments—dissecting toxic love in Hamlet, possessive friendship in Othello, the problematic masculine identity on display in The Odyssey, individual and collective healing in Beloved, and so on. 

Individually, students benefit from this approach to the curriculum, but their larger communities and even American society enjoy rewards as well. I never stop thinking of the school environment as a microcosm, and in class, I often use the small world of school to discuss the effects of social behaviors. 

Colleges, workplaces, families, churches, and government need former teens who are empathetic, healthy, decent, and caring as much as they need people who can argue or understand statistics. If students can pivot from a classroom conversation about literature to make changes in their behavior, they can apply that inclination more broadly to the rest of their lives. That's when lessons feel particularly relevant, in general—when they crash like the Kool-Aid Man through the wall between the classroom and the world outside.

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Drawing on students' experiences

Leslie Atkins Elliott is a professor of curriculum & instruction at Boise State University and co-author of Composing Science. She has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Maryland and has taught physics to students from 2nd grade through graduate school:

Students are keenly aware of the typical "contract" of teaching: that the questions teachers ask in homework will have been answered in the day's lesson; the problems at the end of the chapter will draw on—and only on—ideas presented in the chapter; a question asked during lab will be answered using the materials specifically curated and presented at their lab stations.

On the one hand, this seems only fair: How can we hold students accountable for knowledge that was not part of instruction? How can we expect them to run a successful experiment if we don't provide materials we know will work? On the other hand, it leads to what Engeström describes as an encapsulation of learning: The classroom becomes a world unto itself, walled off from the materials, ideas, goals, and purposes of our everyday lives. In the end, students learn that scientific ideas are not accountable to their own experiences and judgment.

It is this kind of relevance that I, as a science teacher, am interested in—that students find that their own experiences and ideas are not only relevant but essential to developing academic ideas; in doing so, those ideas take on relevance to them. To do this, however, requires that we genuinely allow students to draw from those experiences and ideas—that it is not only the textbook or teacher that has the authority to construct and assess academic knowledge. In particular, I find that when I allow students to ask and answer questions—without a textbook, lab manual, or lecture—they draw richly on their own experiences and they make the lesson relevant to their own lives. Put another way, traditional classroom spaces constrain the relevance of science to students, and when we relax some of the constraints, students construct something relevant for themselves.

Some examples from my science courses: In discussing how it is we see light, a student who is a new parent describes being able to see rays of light in baby powder; another describes the visible beams from the casino lights by her house; a third describes how, when under a spotlight on stage, dancers seem to glow. Without answers from a textbook or lab to point to, we query our own experiences to make sense of the world, using these as evidence in our scientific claims. When we determine, using ink from printers, that the primary colors of paint are cyan, magenta, and yellow, a student who is an artist brings in her red oil paints—and we find that this paint is one that reflects not only red but blue light as well. In each of these cases, students report seeing their everyday world in new ways—informed by and informing their academic world. 

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Passion Projects

Kristin van Brunt has been teaching English in Bountiful, Utah, for 25 years. As part of the inaugural cohort of Utah Teacher Fellows, she is working to change the narrative surrounding public education, so the public and policymakers hear about the positive things happening in classrooms across the nation. Her goal is to create a safe and welcoming environment in which every student can learn:

Over my 25 years in the classroom, I have noticed that two assignments cause more anxiety for my students than any others: research projects and presentations. Students hate the long, drawn-out process of studying a topic they don't care about, and they hate presenting about that topic even more. I once heard that in a survey of people's greatest fears, public speaking came in at number one ... even ahead of death. Whether or not that is true, it is a fact that students generally detest presenting to their peers. They feel uncomfortable and ill-prepared. 

However much students may dislike these two activities, the skills associated with them are beneficial for our kids. The English core and many modern careers require both research and public speaking. We as teachers need to figure out how to make these dreaded projects relevant to our students' lives. The best way I have found so far is to tap into their interests, to give up control over every minute detail of the project, to allow them to select the topics for research and presentations.  

This year, I discovered the Passion Project. I heard of it somewhere in passing and decided to look into it. The concept is simple: Allow students to select a topic of interest and study it. Give them part of the class time each week to do the research and learn as much as possible. They will then find a way to demonstrate their learning through a product they create. Once the products are complete, they present their learning to the class.  

This was a semesterlong activity in my class. One term was spent doing research, and the other was spent creating the product, planning the presentation, and demonstrating the learning to their peers. Students had between 45 minutes and an hour of class time each week to work on their passion. We had mini-lessons in research and presentation skills, and I gave them guidance if they had questions; otherwise, I left them alone. 

I honestly didn't know what to expect and I was pleasantly surprised when the results were so much better than I had dreamed of. Students dug into their topics with fervor and created products that showed how much they had learned over the semester. The presentations, which I usually dread, were exponentially better than they had been in the past. The students cared about their topics, and that came through when they spoke.  

There were, of course, exceptions: students who simply picked topics they already knew about and tried to "wing it" when they presented as opposed to students who really challenged themselves. It was obvious to me and the rest of the class that their hearts weren't in it. I have noticed that when they submitted their topics for the new semester, they chose something they obviously cared about. That's progress. 

Prior to this assignment, I've never had students ask to do research. I've never had them talk about liking presentations. With this activity, I've had both. I let students know during the first semester that this was an experiment and I didn't know how it would go. After the last presentation, students were asking if we could please do it again this semester. They enjoyed learning about something that mattered to them and hearing what others were interested in. They loved the fact that this was relevant to their lives. 

Is the project perfect? No.  

Will I make changes before I assign it in the future? Probably.  

Will I give my students this opportunity again? Definitely. 

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Thanks to Andrew, Jocelyn, Leslie, and Kristin for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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